Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

She be’s out on that bike every Sunday

They do be up late chatting

Everyone knows about grammatical tense – it involves placing a situation in time, using inflections and auxiliaries to mark temporal location in the past, present, future, etc. Aspect, though less familiar, also concerns time: specifically, how a speaker views the temporal structure or properties of an action or situation, such as whether it’s complete, habitual, or still in progress.

So for example, in the progressive aspect an action is, was, or will be in progress: am walking, was writing, will be singing. It pairs auxiliary be with a gerund-participle complement (__ing). The terminology can be forbidding, but the structure is familiar.

Then there’s habitual aspect for habitual or repeated events or states. In the past tense, English can use would (She would make tea when we called) or used to (We used to meet daily). In English present tense, habitual aspect is not marked, and is often indicated with adverbs or adverbials: We go there [regularly / all the time].

Irish English, also called Hiberno-English, can express habitual aspect in present tense by enlisting Irish (Gaelic) grammar. In Irish, tá mé (which can contract to táim) means ‘I am’, literally ‘is me’. But bíonn mé (→ bím) means ‘I (habitually) am’ – a different sense of be. The distinction is so intrinsic to Irish that our ancestors refashioned English to incorporate it.

We did this in several ways. Sometimes do is used:

I’m not so old as you do hear them say. (J.M. Synge, The Well of the Saints)

Sometimes be is inflected:

To be going to the place in which there be’s no welcome (Anthony Raftery, ‘The History of the Bush’, tr. Douglas Hyde)

And sometimes be is paired with auxiliary do:

And who is the gentleman does be visiting there? (James Joyce, Ulysses)

Synge’s line shows the do construction, which looks like an emphatic or contrastive do but is spoken unstressed. Hyde’s translation shows the be’s form, also spelt bes, bees or biz. Joyce’s line shows the do be form (No Sinatra jokes, please), as well as a subject contact clause. Do be and be’s are also used for questions and negatives: Does she be tired after work?; Be’s he always like that?

Different scholars use different terms for this grammatical feature, including habitual, durative habitual, iterative, consuetudinal and generic aspect, ‘often with very subtle subdistinctions’ according to Markku Filppula. Regardless of what term is used, habituality is their chief constituent. P.W. Joyce elaborates in English As We Speak It In Ireland:

In the Irish language (but not in English) there is what is called the consuetudinal tense, i.e. denoting habitual action or existence. It is a very convenient tense, so much so that the Irish, feeling the want of it in their English, have created one by the use of the word do with be: ‘I do be at my lessons every evening from 8 to 9 o’clock.’ ‘There does be a meeting of the company every Tuesday.’ ‘’Tis humbuggin’ me they do be.’ (‘Knocknagow.’)

Sometimes this is expressed by be alone without the do; but here the be is also often used in the ordinary sense of is without any consuetudinal meaning. ‘My father bees always at home in the morning’: ‘At night while I bees reading my wife bees knitting.’ (Consuetudinal.) ‘You had better not wait till it bees night.’ (Indicative.)

Though be’s can be heard in pockets around the island, I associate it with speakers from northern counties. My roommate in college had a strong and distinctive Donegal dialect, and when I knew him (he’s no longer with us) I heard be’s very regularly. I use it myself infrequently, not having grown up with it but liking it enough to adopt it. Do and do be are my usual choices for habitual aspect.

Lady Gregory profile photo

Lady Gregory (1852–1932)

Here’s an example of be’s from Patrick McCabe’s novel Winterwood:

It be’s hard for strangers trying to do that – tell us menfolk one from the other, with our great big beards and red curly heads.

And one from Robert Bernen’s story ‘Brock’:

‘But sure plenty dogs be’s that way,’ Mary interposed.
‘Aye,’ Paddy answered. ‘Some does.’

And the same author’s ‘Danny’s Debts’, from Tales from the Blue Stacks:

‘Spring be’s a long way off.’

An example of do be, from Joyce’s Exiles:

Up half the night he does be.

One from Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland:

The people do be full of stories of all the cures she did.

This line from J.M. Synge’s The Well of the Saints has both do be and do forms:

They are, holy father; they do be always sitting here at the crossing of the roads, asking a bit of copper from them that do pass…

While the next (also from Synge) offers both, plus a couple of do be negatives. Though these latter resemble imperatives (don’t be looking on people), they are describing something habitually not done:

For it’s a raw, beastly day we do have each day, till I do be thinking it’s well for the blind don’t be seeing them gray clouds driving on the hill, and don’t be looking on people with their noses red, the like of your nose, and their eyes weeping and watering, the like of your eyes, God help you, Timmy the smith.

Loreto Todd, in Green English, breaks down the distinction thus: Mary {goes | is going | biz/bees going | does be going} to school, noting that biz/bees ‘suggests regularity’ and does be ‘both regularity and habitualness’. She offers an example from live speech to highlight the difference:

Female A was house proud and liked her drying cloth to be on its peg when not in use. Female B often left the drying cloth on the draining board and was told: ‘That cloth biz on the peg when it doesn’t be drying dishes!’

When the main verb in a clause is also do, it can lead to reduplicative strings which, though unremarked by Irish people, might raise an eyebrow in others. The prologue to Edna O’Brien’s Tales for the Telling refers to ‘the deeds they do be doing’, while Ulysses has a woman who ‘hid herself in a clock to find out what they do be doing’. Séamas Moylan’s Southern Irish English offers ‘I do do it myself an odd time.’ The do do utterance is something I do do myself; again, the first do is unstressed, unlike in contrastive or emphatic uses.

Moylan reports that this ‘very typical feature of Rural SIE was already a shibboleth of the educational establishment’ in the late 19thC, quoting Peadar Ó Laoghaire’s My Story in which the priest recalls an inspector insulting a child and his family ‘before the entire school!’ for using do be. A reader of Sentence first reported their teacher forcing students to cut out and bury text with do be in it. The persistence of the usage despite such vicious opposition ‘is probably an index of the need felt for the aspectual distinction it makes’, Moylan writes.

The origin of these habitual-aspect forms in Irish English is not entirely clear but seems to point to Irish in contact with English. Dialectologist Joseph Wright in 1898 reported several examples of ‘to do be’ from Ireland and southern England. Hickey 2007 (PDF) summarises it as ‘convergence with English input in south, possibly with influence from Scots via Ulster; otherwise transfer of category from Irish’.*

Hickey 2005 (PDF) elaborates:

In syntax, there are many features which either have a single source in Irish or at least converged with English regional input to produce stable structures in later Irish English. To begin with, one must bear in mind that adult speakers learning a second language, especially in an unguided situation, search for equivalents to the grammatical categories they know from their native language. The less they know and use the second language, the more obvious this search is. A case in point would involve the habitual in Irish. […] There is no one-to-one formal or semantic correspondence to this in English, so what appears to have happened is that the Irish availed of the afunctional do of declarative sentence, which was still present in English at the time of renewed plantation in the early seventeenth century…

Lastly, Jeffrey L. Kallen 2012 (PDF) has some detail on usage, semantic differentiation and geographical distribution. He says the be form (what I’ve styled be’s) ‘is relatively invariant, almost always occurring as bes (sometimes spelled as be’s or bees) and never using regular morphology as in *I am.’ He presents the following illustrative set:

(10) a. Did you never read in the papers the way murdered men do bleed and drip? (Synge [1907] 1941: 129)
b. If I go in to meet a spark [‘electrician’], I do find a carpenter (Kallen 1989: 6)
c. He bes always joking (O’Neill 1947: 264)
d. She does be sitting there at nights watching Seven Days (Kallen 1989: 7)

One unsettled question on generic/habitual verb forms concerns the differentiations which can be made within sets such as (10). Semantic differences can be suggested – as between the recurrence of discrete events seen in (10b) versus more extended states of affairs as in (10d) – but existing evidence does not give us a clear pattern.

Kallen says that despite intimations that be forms are ‘more specifically associated with the Ulster dialect area’, it is attested in southern Irish counties including Dublin and neighbouring Meath in the east, Galway and Roscommon in the west, and Wexford in the southeast (albeit recessive). So the two forms’ relative geographical distribution is not as clear-cut as some sources say.

Moylan suggests that the usage is on the way out. I hope not.

*

* It’s also worth noting the parallels with African-American Vernacular English; see for example Collins 2006 and Rickford 1999. AAVE do she be equates, I think, to HibE does she be. Both offer be’s/bees. Do be is definitely not available in standard English: Pollock 1989 (PDF), discussing so-called ‘do support’, explicitly contrasts John is not happy with *John does not be happy – but the Asterisk of Incorrectness would not apply in Ireland.

29 Responses to Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Thanks for footnoting the parallels with African-American Vernacular English, Stan.

  2. Stuart Brown says:

    A couple of observations: firstly, it always strikes me as an odd legacy of the importing of Latinate grammatical terms to English-language schooling that we have to explain the concept of aspect to English-speakers of any dialect, because there is precious little formal tense in English. The so-called “present tenses”, for example, are distinguished by progressive and perfective features, not temporal location (neither “I am going to regret drinking this tomorrow”, “The show starts at 7 o’clock” are temporally located in the present), and of course there is no morphological future marking at all: the constructs all include auxiliary verbs and waver into the category of mood, as they are intrinsically linked to the speaker’s interpretation of likelihood or projection of intent.

    Secondly (and I don’t necessarily endorse this, I’m just raising it) a lot of language-contact theoreticians nowadays might debate whether the presence of a habitual aspect in Hiberno-English was necessarily due to its being imported from Irish syntax. The traditional view that in contact varieties non-standard grammatical features in the lexifier (or “superstrate”) form are imported from the “substrate” form is increasingly challenged by suggestions that there are universal (“universal”, as ever in linguistics, actually meaning “very common but not universal”) features that emerge independently through the processes of rapid language-acquisition, widespread L2-speakership, etc. I don’t know enough about the history of Hiberno-English—whether there was a period of stable contact prior to the aggressive suppression of Irish would impact upon these claims—to assert categorically that this is the case (and, anyway, I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced of the claims anyway), but it’s worth noting that habitual do might well be coincidental to the habitual aspect in Irish, and to have arisen independently simply as a direct consequence of contact-induced change (in parallel, therefore, to the AAVE varieties).

    • There is indeed a mix of habitual and imperfect in many of Stan’s examples. It’s commonly encountered, but not universal: you can have a habitual form without the imperfect. The Latin imperfect tense covers both aspects (if only in the past), which may muddy the water.

      A “working-class” Dubliner is as likely as someone from rural Ireland to say e.g. “I do have a pint on my way home from work” meaning that this is a habitual practice. The “do” is unstressed and the vowel is a schwa. If the “do” is stressed and the vowel has its full value, he is making an admission or concession, or an assertion.

      It’s when both come together that this usage particularly strikes speakers of standard British English.

      An Irishman (Dublin as likely as provincial/rural) will say “I do have the odd pint on the way home from work”. The “do” is unstressed and with schwa vowel. It means that it is a habit. If the “do” is stressed with full vowel value, he is making an admission or concession.

      There is a twitter-meme usage doing the rounds at the moment which appears to be based on black teenage British English “X be [like]”, followed by a jokey photo. But I’m not sure that it reflects a habitual aspect.

  3. Tom Maxwell says:

    In Dublin when I was a child, all my contemporaries, and lots of adults, said ‘I do be…’ as a matter of course. If I said it within earshot of my mother she would say very forcefully ‘Do be is bad grammar!’. So I stopped saying it…

  4. jcmindset says:

    Such a complex topic! thanks for sharing

  5. ho studiato la vostra lingua tanti anni fa con un libro Teach yourself, devo dire che trovai la grammatica semplice rispetto all’italiano, la difficoltà sta nel parlare perché non si pronuncia come è scritto ed è difficile per questo. Comunque le lingue sono tutte molto interessanti soprattutto i dialetti che sono la base dei nostri pensieri.

  6. Stan Carey says:

    Vinetta: You’re welcome. It’s not an area I know much about (and the time I had for research was limited), but the parallel was definitely worth mentioning.

    Stuart: That’s very true about tense in English; I looked at this briefly in a post on the ‘I’m on [verb]’ construction. Thanks for the very helpful comment on language contact. Based on the little literature I looked at there is significant difference of opinion on the origin of these usages. I don’t know enough about the history either, or the linguistics for that matter, so I would keep an open mind about how they arose. (I like your translation of ‘universal’, too; what an academic minefield that is.)

    Roger: Yes, whether the do is stressed or not is key to its interpretation. Reading a line like ‘I do have a pint on my way home from work’ out of context, and without knowing of the Irish usage, it would be reasonable to infer the speaker is insisting or contrasting. But I would tend automatically to read it as an expression of habitual behaviour. The ‘X be [like]’ construction you mention normally does imply habituality; see this short post on habitual be in AAVE.

    Tom: That’s a pity. Entire generations grew up thinking HibE do be was bad grammar, but – as the digital catchphrase goes – it’s really a feature, not a bug.

    Anna Maria: Quite right. John McWhorter expressed it nicely in The Power of Babel: ‘Dialects are all there is: the “language” part is just politics.’ Our regional differences are to be enjoyed and treasured, not bleached out.

  7. Old Gobbo says:

    I don’t think the habitual ‘do’ is unknown in ordinary English, either singly or (re?)duplicated. ‘I do this all the time’ is indeed standard, but ‘I do have a pint on my way home’ would also seem to me a perfectly ordinary usage, whether stressed ‘do’ or not. And I have always heard e.g. ‘Yes, I do do that sometimes’ or ‘Admit it, you do do it’, though I would note that the first ‘do’ is – to my ears – slightly stressed. As far as I can see, unless I have missed something, where Irish English do be differing, to delightful effect, is in the compound with ‘be’ and the graceful conjugations it gives rise to..

  8. Dave Lovely says:

    When John Lee Hooker was touring Scotland, I think in the 1970s, and being supported by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. he was introduced to Alex Harvey who then enquired after his health, in broad Glaswegian (“Hoo are ye?”). The response was a stern. “I’m John Lee Hooker, the blues singer,. Now don’t be asking me who I am again.”

  9. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    Scooby doobie do,
    Or do he be?

  10. Stuart Brown says:

    Old Gobbo: the examples you have given are of contrastive, rather than habitual do. That is, in (standard) English we negate by the use of auxiliary “do not” (this is part of a feature of English called “do support”, Wikipedia’s article is fairly good on this). If one wishes to stress a positive assertion, one can use do-support to contrast with the negative structure; this does not mean that the word “do” itself has to be phonologically stressed, merely that by inserting a “do” one is applying pragmatic stress.

    To take the given example, to the non-Hiberno-English speaker, it would sound very strange to start a topic with “I do have a pint on my way home.” The do here, in a non-habitual-usage dialect, is contrasting with an expectation. Imagine these two speech scenarios, the first of which could occur in any dialect of English, but the second I’d suggest would not:

    “Do you fancy a drink this evening?”
    “I’m too busy. I do have a pint on my way home, though, if you want to join me for that.”

    versus

    (apropos of nothing)
    “I do have a pint on my way home. Fancy joining me today?”

    I’d suggest that in the first the do is not habitual, it is contrastive, and this is demonstrated by the oddity of the second scenario. You would never introduce a topic with do-support. This demonstrates that to, for instance, Anglo-English speakers, this is not a habitual auxiliary. The (Hiberno-) habitual usage would, I think, not usually be “I do have a pint” but “I do be having a pint”.

    Stan: I tend to keep an open mind about these language contact theories as well, even though my (sadly uncompleted) PhD was on dialect contact, I’m not sure I’m totally convinced. I was merely raising it to highlight that it’s not certain that common features to Irish and post-contact Hiberno-English are necessarily imported.

  11. Stuart Brown says:

    Oh, and on the political definition of dialects: there’s an old linguists’ adage (the provenance of which I can’t remember) that “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” I tend to the view that there are neither languages nor dialects: there are 7 billion idiolects, with a greater or lesser degree of mutual understanding…

  12. Stan Carey says:

    Gobbo: ‘I do this all the time’ is standard English, but differs from the usages in the post because do is the main (and only) verb used. A HibE equivalent would be ‘I do do this all the time.’ In phrases like ‘you do do it’, slight stress on the first do marks contrast or emphasis, and is standard English (though I take Stuart’s point about pragmatic stress); slight stress on the second do (or none on either) to mark habitual aspect is not a feature of standard English as far as I can tell.

    Dave: Nice anecdote, thank you!

    Marc: Scoobie be’s / As he does please.

    Stuart: Interesting comments on do-support and contrast. FWIW, though, I would say ‘I do have a pint’ but not ‘I do be having a pint’. But I’m sure there’s a lot of variation in preference around the country. The line about armies and navies is often attributed to Max Weinreich, but I think he’s responsible for spreading it rather than coming up with it. Idiolect- and dialect-central models are both useful, and true in their own ways; which one I tend towards depends on the situation.

  13. Vinetta Bell says:

    Fascinating discussions by all of you. Thanks!
    Stan: Would you care to explain why some small children say “I’m is!” in defiant response to some command or directive, usually from a parent?

  14. Remember first year English teacher saying ‘Bury Mrs Do be and all the little Does bes (1962)

  15. Brendano says:

    be’s is quite common in the Virginia area of Co. Cavan.

  16. Stan Carey says:

    Vinetta: I wish I could! Maybe because the verb ‘disappears’ in I’m, a child will add the redundant (and here inappropriate) form is. But I don’t know what exactly I’m is is intended to mean in the context you describe.

    Rita: It sounds like some teachers took that instruction literally. I think it’s important to teach children standard English, but that shouldn’t entail denigrating non-standard usage.

    Brendan: Thanks for letting me know. I seldom hear it in Galway or Mayo, but apparently it is used in parts of the midwest. I’m glad it’s still common in some areas.

  17. wisewebwoman says:

    I hear “I does be” and “I do be” out here, Stan. Such grammatical delights made their way over on the boats from Southern Ireland, back in the day.
    I use “You do be talkin’!”. I hear the wonderful “maid” added to this when others around here talk to a female. A spattering of Southern England, I believe.
    XO
    WWW

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for reporting from across the shore, WWW! I’m glad to hear they’re used in your neck of the woods too, and only now thought to look up the Dictionary of Newfoundland English: sure enough it has detail under be’s and be.

  18. 7rudra says:

    Stan, am a bit out of topic here. But can you recommend a book that is good for English grammar? I really want to be able to look at the nuts and tools of English language for myuself, but not get stuck with a textbook or a popular usage guide. Humorous, interesting…maybe it will not be one book but two–Thank you!

    • Stan Carey says:

      7rudra: I don’t know if you’ll find one that’s humorous as well as reliable or thorough, but if you’re prepared to forgo comedic value you might like Huddleston & Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar or Quirk & Greenbaum’s A University Grammar of English, though the latter is showing its age a bit now. Pinker’s Words and Rules is more fun but doesn’t aim to be systematic, while the Chicago Manual of Style covers a lot of grammar briefly in a practical way.

      • 7rudra says:

        Thank you. I do have the Student’s Introduction and it is very good, but a bit of a plod. I guess I will have to go through it. PInker is everywhere! I aim to read his Language Instinct and would love to know more about Words and Rules.

        Apart from yours, the other blog I liked on language was Jan Freeman’s Throw grammar from the train, but it’s not as frequent as yours.

        Think about starting a small grammar series–very few write about grammar with a linguistics background. But I think it makes it interesting and gives much-needed background.

        Thank you again
        (Jitendra, Gurgaon, India!)

      • Stan Carey says:

        You’re welcome. A Student’s Introduction is one I find myself returning to for reference, and I hope to read it again from start to finish. You’ll find a brief description and excerpt from Pinker’s Words and Rules here. Blogs-wise you might find Random Idea English and Caxton of particular use or interest.

      • 7rudra says:

        At risk of being a shameless self-promoter, I would like to ask you to check out clearkettledrum.tumblr.com — a blog that I write. I hope you will. Thank you.

  19. […] Debts’, finally, has an example of be’s marking habitual aspect in Irish English, Spring be’s a long way off, while in ‘Brock’, a story from another collection, […]

  20. pep says:

    my comment comes a bit late I´m afraid…

    Very interesting post. Since I´m not a native speaker of english tough, I´m a bit ashamed to say that I didn´understand the joke about not telling Sinatra jokes… I think I´ll “Google” my way out of the doubt ;-)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Late comments are absolutely fine, pep. In case you didn’t work out the Sinatra reference, it has to do his version of the song ‘Strangers in the Night’, in which he sings ‘Do be do be dooo…’ It’s at 2:22 in this video:

  21. […] to say I’m usually tired on Fridays (Stan Carey has a nice piece on this grammatical form here). These constructions are leftovers, grammar structures that were translated from the Gaeilge and […]

  22. […] be construction “has clear parallels with and possible derivations from creole ‘does be’”. Does be is a feature of Hiberno-English too. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage […]

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